How do I get rid of the chemical smell in a china cabinet? Can I seal it in?

Asked by chris pearlman
Newton, NJ

Cabinet was purchased thru Craigs List. Not new. Don't know the type of wood. Had a green "wash" finish on it. Wanted to paint it anyway so I put a coat on. Still smelled. Painted it FOUR times and it still has a chemical smell to it. Can I put some sort of sealant over the top of the paint to "seal in" the smell. Would that work? Help. Really like the cabinet. Had a tag on the back. Made by the Candel Co. out of Canada.


Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Bainbridge Island, WA

A Kitchen That Works LLC

November 15, 2011

Dear Chris,

It is not clear to me what that green "wash" finish is so I can not opine on what the source of the odor is – be it the finish or the substrate.

However, if the smell persists and the back, top and bottom of the piece were not ‘coated’ then it would lead me to believe that the smell is originating from the substrate.

  • Canadel, the manufacturer of this cabinet, is a Canadian based furniture company that happens to be a member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council which is a good thing but it is entirely possible that the company used noxious finishes and/or substrates prior to membership.
  • So not knowing when the piece was actually manufactured, it is difficult to pin point the materials used and therefore the source of the smell.

It would be useful to know what you applied to the piece as this can have a bearing on what can be done to the piece hence forth. But in the absence of this information I have the following suggestions.


Shellac is natural resin dissolved in ethyl alcohol (grain alcohol) and has been used for the better part of 100 years as a furniture finish. The alcohol makes it a bit smelly (and flammable, do not apply near an open flame and ventilate the area you are working in) but it is very effective as a sealer.

Note that it is not durable like polyurethane and will scratch if you toss a set of house keys or other sharp objects on it.

Zinsser Bulls Eye is a popular brand of shellac for furniture and millwork restorers.

  • Use this link to determine if the MSDS information meets your criteria for low toxic finishes.
  • I would recommend that you contact technical support at Rustoleum (parent company of Zinsser) prior to purchase to determine what course of action (such as sanding) you need to take in order to accomplish an effective bond between the shellac and the finish that is currently on the piece of furniture.

Other clear sealers

Alternatives to shellac are sealers such as:

  • Hard Seal from AFM Safecoat which comes in a glossy only clear finish and is designed to be a top coat (MSDS sheet here) and
  • Safe Seal which is designed to be top coated in the event you want to paint the piece or apply some other form of color coat (see MSDS sheet here).
  • You could also consider a clear finish product such as AFM Safecoat Acrylacq which comes in either a glossy or matte finish formula (see MSDS sheet here).

Again, I would recommend you contact AFM Safecoat before purchasing any of their products to determine compatibility with the product you have already applied.

Good luck!


For more information:

Read our backgrounder "Selecting Healthy and Environmentally Sound Clear Wood Finishes" for more detail on urethanes, and natural wax and oil finishes.

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